Strategies of Solidarity: Israel/Palestine and the Empire

A young Palestinian boy in a joint demonstration with Israeli Jews protesting house demolitions, evictions, and settlements in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, September 23, 2010. Oren Ziv/ActiveStills Collective

Palestine today is perhaps the leading international issue evoking solidarity on a global scale. Nonetheless, the “community of nations” apparently remains helpless to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Despite escalated expressions of concern, official and unofficial international institutions failed to halt or substantially moderate Israel’s third assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014 or impose any sanction for it. Straining the limits of credulity, the Obama administration, its international allies, and the American political class continue to prattle about the “peace process” as if it were more than a propaganda term. The widening gap between global public opinion and the ineffectuality of the international state system in the face of the ever-worsening conditions of Palestinian lives obliges global solidarity activists to deepen our understanding of the conflict, reconsider the possibilities for its resolution, and reflect on our strategies.

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Formerly, most of the international (but not Arab) left saw the conflict as on between two national movements. Today, the left, and even some liberals, increasingly understand the conflict as one between settlers (Zionists) and an indigenous people (Palestinian Arabs) and characterize Israel (or at least its settlement project in the West Bank) as an “apartheid state.” Historically, both conceptions have elements of truth. However, the settler colonial/apartheid aspect of the conflict figures more prominently as Israeli Jewish political opinion has become more assertively right wing since the demise of the Oslo “peace process” and the eruption of the second intifada in 2000.

The framework of settler colonialism and apartheid has been popularized by the global campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel in response to the 2005 call from over 170 Palestinian organizations. Many campaign activists recall the role a similar movement played in the demise of apartheid South Africa.

BDS is a strategy (or a range of strategies), not a unified movement or a political platform. There is a Palestinian Boycott National Committee, a Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (launched a year earlier than the broader BDS call), a U.S. Campaign for the Cultural and Academic Boycott of Israel, and several similar national organizations. But BDS campaign participants have no elected central leadership or democratic decision-making mechanisms. Nonetheless, they have made a major contribution to transforming support for Palestinian rights from a barely discernible blip on the margins of American political life to a visible political force.

The political complexion of BDS ranges from liberal Zionists who generally do not identify with the international campaign and target only settlements in the occupied West Bank (although the settlement project is inextricably connected to the political economy of Israel), non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, and proponents of both one- and two-state solutions to the conflict. Resolutions of churches, student unions, and academic associations vary widely in their political import and practical scope. Organizations and coalitions have selected targets and adopted tactics that they have deemed most appropriate to their local context – an approach approved by leading Palestinian BDS activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In practice, this means that most BDS campaigns in the United States are directed against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, not the state of Israel itself.

For all their recent successes, BDS campaigns are not driving Israel to a South African style collapse in the foreseeable future. That day may come when the global and regional balance of forces changes (and BDS campaigns are part of bringing this about) and if Palestinians develop an effective and sufficiently unified political leadership. In that event, Palestinians and Israelis will have to address their political future more seriously and concretely than current formulaic statements do.

One State, Two States

Whatever the resolution of the conflict and however long it takes to achieve it, one fact on the ground will not change. Absent a catastrophic regional war, two peoples who see themselves as national communities – Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews – are destined to inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Many Israeli Jews would like nothing better than to see Palestinians disappear from the country altogether. But in the face of repeated efforts to intimidate them and overburden their lives, the great majority of Palestinians have quietly chosen to remain in their homeland. International opinion will not tolerate mass expulsions like those of 1948 and 1967.

As for Israeli Jews, no Algerian-style solution (colons and indigenous Jews emigrating to France) is possible. Most have nowhere to go. Western countries are already welcoming educated Jews with high-tech and other business skills. But none would accept large numbers of refugees from the working and lower middle classes. In this sense Israel does resemble South Africa – two nuclear-armed settler communities prepared to fight to the death. The South African case teaches us that it is possible to disarm a settler community in favorable circumstances and compel it to embark on a transition towards a democratic regime (even if we may disagree on the terms of the deal between the ANC and white South Africans).

A viable political strategy must offer a vision of the future that can, at least in principle, be embraced by the great majority of the inhabitants of the land, regardless of their national or religious identity. This must entail the full formal and substantive equality of both peoples and coexistence rather than separation (the traditional left-Zionist solution), regardless of what political institutions are established. This means a radical democratic acknowledgment of national, ethnic, and religious diversity. Unlike the South African ANC, the majority of Palestinian nationalists, like most Zionists, do not advocate such a vision.

The traditional slogans of the left are inadequate for resolving the conflict. The historic Trotskyist approach, which simply exhorted Arab and Jewish workers to repudiate their respective national movements and unite on a class basis, failed long ago. In the late 1960s Fatah raised the slogan, “a secular democratic state of Muslims, Christians and Jews.” More recently, Palestinians, solidarity activists, and a growing number of leftist Israelis have embraced the slogan, “one person, one vote.”

Fatah’s multi-religious call ignores the rights of the few Baha’is, the many (mostly Jewish and more recently Russian non-Jewish) atheists, and the 100-200,000 Buddhist Thai migrant workers who inhabit Israel/Palestine. More fundamentally, both slogans ignore the national dimension of the conflict. “One person, one vote” is rooted in the kind of liberal universalism that most of the international left has repudiated. In addition to ignoring ethno-national issues, it is blind to the intersections of national and class questions, which might require, for example, a compensatory development plan for the Arab majority regions of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

The 2004 Olga Document of anti-Zionist Israelis and the 2007 Haifa Declaration of Palestinian-Israelis proposed very similar principles for resolving the conflict in Israel within its 1967 borders: “The country belongs to all its sons and daughters—citizens and residents, both present and absentees (the uprooted Palestinian citizens of Israel in 48)—with no discrimination on personal or communal grounds, irrespective of citizenship or nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity or gender.” The Haifa Declaration envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside a democratic Israel; the Olga Document is noncommittal on this point. Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals seeking to break out of the straightjacket of two states – but not really, and not yet – fashioned during the post-1993 Oslo process have offered additional approaches since then: alternatives to partition, parallel states, etc. Other ideas are certainly possible and worth considering. However, arguing about whether or not it is “too late” for a two-state solution or whether it was ever a good idea is largely a waste of time and energy and often evades the key questions of equality and coexistence.

Mustafa Barghouti, one of the most astute Palestinian political leaders with a distinguished history of struggle beginning in the Palestine Communist Party in the 1970s, is now the leader of the Palestinian National Initiative and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Although long a proponent of two states, he now effectively finesses the issue, arguing that “the two-state solution is dying.” But he has refrained from proclaiming it dead because, “We will not fall into the … trap … of allowing them to accuse us of destroying the two state solution. If Israel really does leave the occupied territories, then we can talk about a two-state solution and talk about a federated agreement between states.” But that, he said, would be a “miracle.” Barghouti understands that remaining within the existing international two-state consensus (deluded as it may be) puts Palestinians on the moral high ground.

In fact, neither one nor two states are on the horizon. The escalating pace of Israeli settlement in the West Bank and the rightward lurch of Israeli-Jewish political opinion nearly guarantee that Israel will not agree to a two-state solution that amounts to more than Bantustans. Therefore, the focus should be upholding the rights of the Palestinian people, enhancing their capacity to remain on their lands, and standing in solidarity with nonviolent acts of resistance.

In principle, Palestinians have the right to resist occupation by armed struggle, and there is no denying the historical role of violence in both colonization and decolonization. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad represent this principle today. Despite their regressive ideologies and practices, they are part of the Palestinian people. Ignoring or demonizing them as “terrorists” contributes to blocking a resolution of the conflict. However, armed struggle in Palestine/Israel has failed. Moreover, the form it has often taken, including many indiscriminate attacks on civilians, is both morally dubious and poor strategy if the goal is to create the basis for a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious future.

Maintaining ambiguity on one/two states does alienate many Zionist liberals, like those of J Street, who envision no solution but two states and who explicitly reject equality and coexistence. However, J Street and its co-thinkers are part of the problem, not the solution. First, because they support an Israeli state in which Jewish supremacy remains legally entrenched. Second, because they embrace segregation. Finally, they imagine that the United States must play a leading role in achieving a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The historical record suggests that this is most improbable.

Debating whether Israel and/or the occupation regime in the West Bank and Gaza Strip does or does not meet the international legal criteria of apartheid is largely an academic exercise. An ICC judgment finding Israel guilty of apartheid would influence public opinion and carry weight in international venues where the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid has some standing. But in and of itself it cannot determine the outcome of the struggle. That depends on a political strategy and program.

Most of those who use the term “apartheid” mean that the Israel as currently constituted is predicated on expulsion and expropriation of the Palestinian people, systematic denial of their national and human rights, and an increasingly vicious racism. That much is self-evident. As Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir argue, there is one sovereign regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – Israel. It is a well-entrenched and fundamentally anti-democratic regime that cannot be undone simply by Israel withdrawing from the territories occupied in 1967. Ran Greenstein proposes the term “apartheid of a special type,” which leaves sufficient room to acknowledge the specificities of the situation while unequivocally branding it as morally and politically unacceptable.

The enemies of the Palestinian people remain those identified in the late 1960s, when Fatah and other armed organizations emerged to revive a nationalist movement that had been defeated in 1948, misled by its own elites, and coopted by Arab neighbors who posed as allies. They are Zionism, imperialism, and Arab reaction.


There are many different forms of Zionism. Today, the differences are mostly of historical interest. Labor (or socialist) Zionism, the hegemonic form until 1977, was more effective in settling the land of Palestine and uprooting its indigenous Arab inhabitants than the Revisionist Zionist movement, the precursor of Israel’s Likud Party, or the modern Orthodox religious forces that emerged as the vanguard of the settlement movement in the 1970s. Settlement and establishing a Jewish majority in the country was the common program of all versions of Zionism. Today the heirs of Labor Zionism – the Labor Party and the much smaller Meretz to its left – are defensive, timid, and indecisive in their nominal opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Moreover, they avoid addressing issues like substantive equality and refugees. No form of Zionism today constitutes an effective opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip or its other increasingly anti-democratic policies.

The great majority of those who now call themselves Zionists support more or less egregious forms of Jewish supremacy in Israel/Palestine. That is the operative meaning of Zionism for Palestinians. But there is no reason to object if the very small number of Zionists who abjure Jewish supremacy, like Charles Manekin, a professor of Jewish studies and philosophy at the University of Maryland who blogs at The Magnes Zionist, wish to define Zionism as a Jewish cultural revival and continue to identify with it as such.

U.S. Imperialism

The most constant element of the conflict for the last half century is that Israel’s overwhelming regional military superiority, its status as a U.S. ally benefitting from extraordinary access to military aid and political support, and a U.S. monopoly on the putative “mediation” of the conflict have constructed a political impasse that allows the status quo to continue indefinitely. Rashid Khalidi’s recent book, Brokers of Deceit, definitively confirms that the United States has long been the main external force preventing a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (although there is room to debate his reasoning for why this is so). The United States has repeatedly blocked efforts by the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia to break the diplomatic impasse. Historically, Europe deferred to the United States in the Middle East, not least because for many years American-owned corporations controlled Europe’s oil spigot. The EU and similar formations like the hapless Quartet, which pretended to be a relevant actor in the 2000s, are incapable of bringing about a just solution to the conflict unless the United States authorizes them.

America’s Arab allies have long argued that if only Israel and its supporters had not hijacked its Middle East policy, the United States would pursue a policy of peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. Some American organizations and individuals, including The Council for the National Interest, If Americans Knew, The Middle East Policy Council and the monthly Washington Report on the Middle East support Palestinian rights on that premise. Their leaders prominently include former diplomats who served in Arab oil states and former members of Congress. Some of these groups have received funding from Arab oil states that are essentially protectorates of the United States.

This position is not only associated with careers made in the Arab world. Phil Weiss, one of the Jewish editors of the Mondoweiss blog, has no such connections. But he and other contributors consistently point to the Israel lobby as the principal determinant of U.S. policy on Israel/Palestine. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, prominent scholars who long held consensus views at the center of realist international relations theory, offer the most comprehensive and reasoned presentation of this position. They can think of no explanation besides the lobby for why the interests of a client state consistently outweigh the national interests of its great power patron. Like all realist theorists, they view “national interests” as an objective fact, not an object of contention among different social forces of a national polity. Moreover, they somehow fail to notice that the United States is an imperial power in the Middle East and beyond, a fact that interventionist liberals like Michael Ignatieff acknowledge and embrace, in surprising agreement with many neo-conservatives.

Imagining that U.S. positions on Israel-Palestine are due only to pressure from the Israel lobby and have no significant geo-strategic component requires ignoring the bloody history of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Its highlights include the 1953 CIA coup in Iran and support for a long list of Arab absolute monarchies and civilian autocrats beginning with Saudi Arabia, the first and most regressive of Islamist regimes. Those alliances, along with the U.S.-Israel alliance, were consolidated in the context of the Cold War.

In the 1967 war, Israel ignominiously defeated the radical Arab nationalist states of Egypt and Syria, which had (along with Iraq) outbid each other in promising to liberate Palestine and transform their own countries. The defeat of the Arab states allowed armed Palestinian resistance organizations to take over the PLO and reframe the Palestinian cause as part of the global anti-colonial struggle. Much of the Arab world, especially youth influenced by the New Left, saw the Palestinian resistance as a new regional vanguard. The United States opposed the PLO and proposals for Palestinian independence in the 1970s and 1980s as much for that reason as support for Israel.

In Latin America, Israel performed important proxy tasks in the 1970s and 1980s, when Congress refused to authorize arms sales or military intervention (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina), in some cases selling more arms than the U.S. desired. Israel also collaborated with apartheid South Africa in developing nuclear weapons. There were then, as now, occasional important policy differences. But on balance, since the mid-1960s, Israel has been a strategic asset for the U.S. empire.

In addition to its overly idealized and historically blinkered view of U.S. Middle East policy, the argument that the Israel lobby uniquely influences U.S. Middle East policy replicates the classic anti-Semitic trope of excessive Jewish power. There is no evidence that John Mearsheimer is an anti-Semite in any conscious or overt way, unlike Gilad Atzmon, who has been denounced as an anti-Semite by Palestinians, Jews, and others in the international solidarity movement. But Mearsheimer’s supportive blurb for Atzmon’s “fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world” The Wandering Who? betrays political naiveté, limited knowledge of the issue, and political irresponsibility.

Undoubtedly, the Israel lobby exercises great influence over U.S. Middle East policy, and perhaps even more so over domestic politics. That influence has been more visible and more substantial since the 1990s. The lobby has expanded well beyond its historic Jewish core. Christians United for Israel has by far the largest membership of any pro-Israel lobbying organization, although its annual budget is less than half that of the Jewish-based American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Nonetheless, on matters that are central to U.S. imperial interests the lobby generally does not prevail: President Eisenhower demanded that Israel evacuate the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip following the Israeli-French-British aggression against Egypt in 1956; the U.S. sold weapons to Jordan in the mid-1960s over Israel’s objections; the Reagan administration supplied AWACS surveillance aircraft to Saudi Arabia in 1986-87 despite the opposition of Israel and the lobby; President George H.W. Bush refused to authorize $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 as long as it continued settlement in the West Bank and publicly criticized the Israel lobby for opposing him (he subsequently backed down); President Obama has criticized the lobby and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over their opposition to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program in unusually forceful terms. Speaking at American University Obama stated, “as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.”

The Contradictions of Regional Politics

Do the friends of the Palestinian movement for human and national rights include putatively anti-imperialist Arab states or the clerical regime of Iran? The Arab states that won independence from colonial rule and were identified with the global anti-imperialist camp from the 1950s to the 1980s (which was, to be sure, problematically linked to the Soviet Union) – Egypt, Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, and Algeria – were wary of a politically independent PLO. They sought to contain it and deploy it to serve their particular interests, sponsoring splinter groups to divide and weaken the resistance movement and limiting its access to arms. Then, as now, the Palestinians had no reliable allies in the Arab world.

Since the 1980s Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, have constituted what some have called an “axis of resistance” in the Middle East because they oppose the regional status quo, including U.S. imperial dominance. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis necessarily clashes with America and its allies, most prominently Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. But, no element of this axis has ever elaborated a viable program to counter U.S. imperialism. The Middle East is far more complex than a term like “axis of resistance” (or “axis of evil”) suggests.

Since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and even more so after the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the United States has come to consider Sunni jihadi Islamists – al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qa‘ida’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) and the Sinai Province (IS’s Egyptian affiliate, formerly Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) – as its highest priority adversaries in the Middle East. The U.S. has unofficially coordinated attacks on IS with Iranian-trained Iraqi-Shi‘a militias and not prevented and probably coordinated with Iranian, Syrian, and Russian aircraft operating against IS in Iraq.

Reducing Middle Eastern politics to a simplistic dichotomy of “Islamists” vs. “secularists” is equally unhelpful. This does not account for the current confrontation between the Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia and the Shi‘a camp led by Iran. Nor does it explain the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar within the Sunni camp or the close alliance of “secularist” Egypt and “Islamist” Saudi Arabia and their alignment with the United States (and implicitly, Israel).

Turkey, a NATO member, has recently announced that it has become more engaged against IS. But Turkey regards both IS and the Nusra Front as allies against its large Kurdish minority, fearing that Turkish and Syrian Kurds have become overly emboldened by the U.S. protectorate over Iraqi Kurdistan that has permitted it to approach the status of an independent state. Turkish airstrikes have reportedly been concentrated, not against IS, but against northern Syrian positions of Kurdish militias, even though they have been the most effective ground force combatting IS.

The inadequacy of the “Islamist”-“secularist” binary was sharply exposed in July, when the Nusra Front captured eight members of Division 30, a unit of so-called moderates trained by the United States to fight IS in Syria. In early August, the Nusra Front assaulted Division 30’s headquarters, killed five of its members, and captured several more. Division 30 announced that that it, “will not fight Jabhat al-Nusra” and that, contrary to American strategy, it will fight against the regime of President Bashar al-‘Asad. Remaining members of Division 30 have taken refuge in Kurdish held areas of northern Syria, and the United States has retreated from the project of developing a pro-American rebel armed force in Syria.

Division 30 trainers apparently believed that the Nusra Front would tolerate its operations against IS, since IS and the Nusra Front are rivals in the camp opposed to the ‘Asad regime. The Americans had apparently not considered that the Nusra Front would be sophisticated enough to understand that any force that successfully fought IS would gain combat experience and prestige and potentially challenge the Nusra Front as well. American policy makers also apparently believed they could build a neo-colonial military force that would engage only the enemy designated by the United States: IS.

China and Russia have a growing presence in the Iranian and Iraqi gas and oil industry. Like the United States after World War II, they benefit from not having been colonial powers in the region (or in the case of Russia and Iran, not very recently). But it is easy to imagine them adopting a more imperial role. Iran, Syria, and Russia are preparing a new diplomatic initiative proposing a solution to the Syrian civil war. In the absence of a remotely successful policy, the United States may decide to engage this demarche if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program becomes effective. At that point, there may be an intense debate between those U.S. policy makers who have encouraged IS as a force against the ‘Asad regime and those willing to see ‘Asad or an equally authoritarian successor regime as an ally against jihadi Islamists – a complement to U.S. policy in Egypt and Yemen.

Enemies and Friends

Anti-democratic forces of all stripes are the enemies of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Iran and Hezbollah have played a certain role in supporting Palestinian resistance. But they are neither reliable nor desirable as allies. Their bombastic pronouncements detract from the struggle as much as they may have aided it by appearing to align the cause of Palestine with Holocaust deniers and religious fanatics. Their religious orientation frightens some potential allies, not least many Palestinian Christians. Syria and Iran do not wish to see a democratic regime that guarantees the rights of all its ethnic and religious communities in Israel/Palestine any more than Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Their status as symbols of “resistance” against U.S. hegemony would be undermined by resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Iran’s domestic opposition forces would be emboldened. The ‘Asad regime’s claim to be “the beating heart of Arabism” in opposition to Zionism and imperialism would become outmoded.

Politics is more demanding if we must think through each situation in a detailed manner. But working through those complexities provides the best experience for developing long-term strategies and political orientations. As Larbi Ben M’hidi famously said in The Battle of Algiers, “It’s only afterwards, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin.”

*Thanks to Max Ajl, Matan Kaminer, David Mandel and Zachary Lockman for comments on an early draft of this article.

Author of the article

is Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History at Stanford University. His newest book, forthcoming in early November, is titled Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.